Looking at the slew of Telugu film releases in the last two years, it looks like Tollywood is setting a new trend and a very encouraging one at that. Let’s a quick look at the film releases so far in 2019. Chiranjeevi, Mahesh Bahu and Venkatesh delivered hits with Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy, Maharishi and F2 respectively while Pawan Kalyan, Jr NTR and Allu Arjun didn’t have any releases. Naga Chaitanya delivered a hit with Majili but Prabhas’ Saaho was a damp squib, as were Balakrishna’s NTR biopics, Nani’s Gang Leader, and yes, current heartthrob Vijay Devarakonda’s Dear Comrade. In fact, the majority of films that turned out to be gold at the Tollywood box office in 2019 were medium and small budget films.
According to 2019 trade reports, 118 (Kalyan Ram), Ismart Shankar (Ram Pothineni), Agent Sai Srinivasa Athreya (newcomer Naveen Polishetty), Brochevarevurara (Sree Vishnu), Evaru (Adivi Sesh), Jersey (Nani), Chitralahiri (Sai Dharam Tej) and Gaddhalakonda Ganesh (Varun Tej) were all hits or blockbusters.
Given the fact that the top stars are few and don’t choose to do more than one film a year (if at all), Telugu producers seem to be exploring other ways of having skin in the game. This seems to have sparked a new wave in the film industry where more producers are choosing to work specifically on medium and small budget films to ensure continued survival and longevity in the film industry. The most important point, though, is that producers are consciously moving away from the run-of-the-mill films and betting on newcomers (directors and actors), new subjects and different storylines.
Fresh scripts and experimental films
National Award-winning director and actor Rahul Ravindran made his directorial debut in 2018 for which he won accolades and awards. Reportedly made on a budget of Rs 2 crore, Chi La Sow, (Sushanth and Ruhani Sharma) clicked with most of the audience thanks to its new story concept and excellent screenplay. Ask him about this wave of ‘new’ films and he says, “Nothing has changed in the number of medium and small budget films being produced each year but what has significantly changed is the kind of content small and medium budget films are backing; the kind of scripts that are getting green light and how interesting the stories have gotten now. Nothing is taboo any more. In fact, if something is different it is encouraged and people realise the fact that you need something new and novel in your script to appeal to the audience. That has definitely changed!”
118, starring Kalyan Ram, was reportedly filmed on a budget of Rs 11 crore which went on to be a huge success netting Rs 50 crore at the box office. Producer of 118, Mahesh Koneru, says, “Everyone would love to make a “big” film. But to make one, a producer needs an A grade Star and a bankable director. Most A Grade stars have their own production houses or friends who are producers. So it is very difficult for a new producer to get a chance to make a big film.”
With every Friday release, it’s not just the fate of a film that’s decided on that day but also the fate of the producer. “Earlier, producers and directors who didn’t have access to the big stars made films that were probably written with these stars in mind and made them on a lower budget with not-so-established actors, etc. The kind of films that were being made and stories being told – whether big or small – were the same. Now, small and medium budget film producers realise that unless they give novel content, it will no longer work with the audience. On one hand, consumption patterns of the cinema-going audience have changed drastically with the advent of OTT platforms. The audience has stopped coming to the theatre to watch smaller/medium budget films that offer the same stories as big films. On the other hand, new, young, brave filmmakers came and made experimental films that the audience loved and lapped up. This also forced producers to start looking for scripts that weren’t from the same mould,” adds Rahul Ravindran.
Smaller budgets also mean that the risks associated with these films are lower and make them ‘safe’ ventures.
Another important aspect to factor in is the number of theatres across Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. According to the film trade, there are over 2000 theatres in the Telugu-speaking states and this has also had an impact on the kind of films being made. “In Hyderabad, there are about 50 multiplexes and more across other cities like Vizag, Warangal and Vijaywada, etc. Multiplexes need content and people are ready to consume good content. While a big star film has its place with the audience, the audience readily comes to the theatre to watch a good medium/small film any day of the week. Thus, these films do well in multiplexes and the financials work out really well for producers too. The market right now is buoyant for medium and small budget films with good content,” emphasises producer and director Madhura Sreedhar.
Smaller budgets also mean that the risks associated with these films are lower and make them ‘safe’ ventures. Agrees Mahesh Koneru, “The risk is probably lower for a medium budget film and the upside is huge if it clicks.” And these financials have been evident in numerous films that released this year.
Another factor that is driving producers to make smaller films that are highly content-driven are also the satellite, digital and overseas rights. “If the small movie has great content, we get a good deal from the satellite, digital, overseas and remake rights. And if the movie clicks at the box office, then we also benefit financially from the remake rights,” says Madhura Sreedhar.
In this scenario, Tollywood producers seem to be also driving directors to come up with novel concepts including heroine-oriented subjects. The sole actress, who carried a film on her shoulders and delivered a blockbuster this year, is Samantha Akkineni with Oh! Baby which was reportedly made on a budget Rs 10 crore. A remake of the Korean film Miss Granny, the movie, directed by B V Nandini Redyy, grossed over Rs 40 crore at the box office. With this new trend, it definitely seems to be exciting times not just for filmmakers in the Telugu film industry but the audience too.
Latha Srinivasan is a senior journalist and film critic based out of Chennai. She has a passion for cinema, travel and dogs.